Senator Proposes “No-Ride” List For Rail

One U.S. Senator wants to bring elements of the TSA's security theater to America's rail system.

In the wake of reports that al Qaeda may have considered targeting commuter rail in the United States, one United States Senator is proposing tightening security on commuter rail throughout the U.S. in a manner that seems destined to make travel by rail as inconvenient as air travel:

A senator on Sunday called for a “no-ride list” for Amtrak trains after intelligence gleaned from the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound pointed to potential attacks on the nation’s train system.

Sen. Charles Schumer said he would push as well for added funding for rail security and commuter and passenger train track inspections and more monitoring of stations nationwide.

“Circumstances demand we make adjustments by increasing funding to enhance rail safety and monitoring on commuter rail transit and screening who gets on Amtrak passenger trains, so that we can provide a greater level of security to the public,” the New York Democrat said at a news conference.

U.S. officials last week said evidence found after the raid on bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan indicated the al Qaeda leader or his associates had engaged in discussions or planning for a possible attack on a train inside the United States on September 11, 2011.

Schumer, citing U.S. intelligence analysts, said attacks were also considered on Christmas and New Year’s Day and following the president’s State of the Union address.

He called on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to expand the Secure Flight monitoring program, which cross-checks air travelers with the terror watch list in an attempt to prevent anyone on the “no-fly list” from boarding, for use on Amtrak.

Such a procedure would create an Amtrak “no-ride list” to keep suspected terrorists off the U.S. rail system, he said.

With the proviso that I haven’t traveled by train in a long time, I must say that I can’t see how this could be implemented in a way that wouldn’t totally disrupt the boarding process, and make taking Amtrak almost as inconvenient as taking American Airlines. More importantly, though, one would think that after the events in London and Madrid, we would already be doing everything we can to increase real security in rail transportation. Additionally, as Mitch Berg notes, one wonders if this is really necessary:

Of course, except for the tiny fragment of America living in the congested mid-Atlantic strip, Amtrak is largely on Amerca’s “do not ride” list.  Amtrak is an epic money pit.

In vast swathes of the US, terrorists would be the only person on an Amtrak train.

Heh, indeed. More importantly, the most vulnerable rail assets, it seems, wouldn’t be some Amtrak route on the East Coast, but the commuter rail and subway lines that so many Americans rely on to get to work everyday in cities like New York and Washington. “Do Not Ride” lists would be completely impractical there, as would security of the type we deal with at airports. Instead, we have to rely on other methods to keep rail safe rather than bringing the TSA’s security theater to yet another transportation venue.

I will say this much, though, if Schumer wanted to destroy rail transportation in this country, he’s headed down the right path.

Update: It’s also worth noting that it makes absolutely no sense to spend even more money on subsidized rail when they keep finding themselves unable to turn a profit:

An independent analysis found that the average operational loss per passenger on all 44 of Amtrak’s routes was $32 in 2008.24 The only profitable line was the higher-speed Acela Express in the Northeast Corridor. However, the Northeast Corridor’s Northeast Regional line, which has more than twice the number of riders as the Acela, lost money per passenger. The Sunset Limited, which runs from New Orleans to Los Angeles, lost an astounding $462 per passenger.

All of Amtrak’s long-distance routes lose money. According to the Government Accountability Office, these routes account for 15 percent of riders but 80 percent of financial losses.25 The long-distance trains exist largely for the benefit of rural populations, but the benefit is outweighed by infrequent or inconvenient service and a heavy cost to taxpayers.

There are only an estimated 350,000 rural people nationwide who depend solely on rail for public intercity travel. By comparison, intercity air and bus services provide the sole transportation option for 2.4 million and 14.4 million residents nationwide, respectively.26 Whereas intercity air and bus services are available to a respective 89 and 71 percent of rural America, the figure for rail is only 42 percent.27 The GAO says that “it appears that if rural transportation were a targeted public policy objective, other modes of transport could be better positioned to provide this benefit to a greater number of residents at lower cost.”28

The demographic being served by these long-term routes does not demonstrate a strong need for taxpayer subsidies. Eighty percent of long-distance train riders use it for recreational and leisure trips, and riders tend to be retirees.29 Premium services like sleeper and dining cars contribute to operating losses for long-distance trains. These amenities are heavily subsidized, which means taxpayers—and not the pleasure-seeking retirees—are incurring the burden.

So, ridership figures notwithstanding, Amtrak remains a boondoggle for most of the United States and, honestly, one wonders why terrorists would even bother with such a low value target.

 

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FILED UNDER: Intelligence, National Security, Terrorism, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. legion says:

    Well, a lot of terrorist attacks are made via car bomb (including the OK City bombing), so we’ll need a ‘No-Drive’ list next.

    And even more attacks are carried out by people just walking into someplace crowded with a vest on, so we need a ‘No-Walk’ list too.

    Then we can just consolidate all our lists into watching a group of people we just shouldn’t let out of their houses.

    Does anyone else see this being as pathetically useless as I do?

  2. PD Shaw says:

    Is there anything that a train can be driven into, like a tower or government building?

    Otherwise, one doesn’t need to be on the train if you don’t want to control it.

  3. Joe says:

    I agree legion. How long would it take for some toothless moron in alabama to use this as a reason for a no talk list, because people say things they don’t like. or a no breathing list……………..where does it end.

  4. lunaticllama says:

    1.) At least in NJ, the Amtrak and NJ Transit (commuter rail) trains are on some of the same lines.
    2.) If you want to destroy rail infrastructure, it’s a lot easier to do outside a train. There’s just not a lot of damage one can do to things besides the train, its passengers, and a train yard if you were to hijack a train.

  5. PD,

    What Schumer’s idea ignores is the fact that this al Qaeda plot apparently was talking about sabotaging the rails so as to cause a derailment or planting explosives somewhere along the route. Obviously, you don’t need to be on a train to do either of those things.

  6. jfoobar says:

    I would honestly suggest updating the post title from “Senator” to “Senator Schumer.” It is far more descriptive that way considering the man’s history for misguided legislative theatrics.

  7. Donald says:

    I take it that your main point is that misguided, heavy-handed new “security” measures could ruin passenger rail without materially increasing actual security. Inclined to agree with that.

    This fellow at Balloon Juice argues though that your part about ridership is plain wrong

    http://www.balloon-juice.com/2011/05/09/the-search-continues/

  8. JKB says:

    You know what we need? More public transportation. Really, people just don’t get their junk grabbed often enough. And think of the inconvenience, arriving 2 hours before your commute time. I’m all for it, let’s install TSA at every NYC subway stop. Don’t worry the urbanista cattle will love it.

    Really, if they blew up an AMTRAK train, would anyone besides Joe Biden notice. It’s isn’t hard to wreck one of those trains, when I commuted on the MARC we routinely clipped cars backed up at crossings and the AMTRAK fell off the tracks where there was a noticeable list to the rail bed.

  9. Barry says:

    http://www.balloon-juice.com/2011/05/09/the-search-continues/

    Points out that: “Amtrak President and CEO Joe Boardman testified before the House Appropriations Committee last week that with ridership growing more than 36% since 2000, the national passenger railroad company is on pace to break its annual ridership record of 28.7 million passengers, which was set last year. Ridership has not only increased on all three of Amtrak’s major business lines, including the Northeast Corridor, it has grown on most Amtrak train routes across the country, with strong gains in the Southeast, Midwest, and California.”
    and links http://blog.tstc.org/2011/04/13/amtrak-on-pace-to-set-all-time-ridership-record/

  10. robert green says:

    the measure of things:
    so you’ve made a directly false assertion about amtrak’s ridership numbers (by passing along someone else’s false observation). you’ve been called out on it. i too used google to discover how absurd your claim was though i knew it intuitively from having ridden on amtrak this past year numerous times. your “error” supports your argument—therefore it is fair to ask if it is an error or an intentional attempt to mislead. intellectual integrity would demand that a) you publish comments such as these and b) you correct your error, explaining why your bias led you to believe such an assertion without checking up on it to begin with. then c) you would explore whether your whole premise might arise from such unfact-checked bias.

    you will do none of these things.

  11. PD Shaw says:

    Amtrak says everything is rosy; send more money please.

  12. Robert.

    Apparently neither you nor the humorless poster at Balloon Juice understands the concept of a joke. Nonetheless, you will note the update I posted about just how much of a money losing boondoggle Amtrak actually is.

  13. Even if you had perfect security to stop bad people from getting on the train, it wouldn’t make the trains safer. They seem to be overlooking the fact that trains don’t travel 30,000 feet above the ground; you don’t really need to be on the train to attack it.

  14. mistermix says:

    Hmm, I guess that’s how you address your inability to google a simple fact and your lazy reliance on a shibboleth – with an ad hominem.

    Jokes are only funny when they have some truth at their core. Your “heh indeed” was for an unfunny joke about nobody riding Amtrak. As I said in the B-J post, even if Amtrak is a money pit, people are actually riding it.

  15. Seitz says:

    Nonetheless, you will note the update I posted about just how much of a money losing boondoggle Amtrak actually is.

    As opposed to interstate highways and other public roads, from which the government rakes in cash hand over fist.

  16. If Amtrak is a money pit, that’s an excellent argument for cutting off subsidies.

    But, of course, neither that nor ridership was even the point of the post. So, whatever

  17. mistermix says:

    “Whatever”? I think the words you’re looking for are “I was mistaken” or “Let me correct this fact which isn’t central to my argument”. I guess they’re not in your vocabulary. Duly noted.

  18. Again, jokes. Look into them.

    Second, the statement “ridership is up” does not address the point that Mitch Berg made that ridership outside the NE Corridor is, as a relative matter, lower.

    Third, 28 million riders in a a nation of more than 300 million people doesn’t strike me as a huge demand.

  19. Seitz says:

    If Amtrak is a money pit, that’s an excellent argument for cutting off subsidies.

    Agreed. So like I implied above, I look forward to your post advocating the elimination of all funding that goes toward interstate highways, state roads, etc. Talk about money pits!

  20. mantis says:

    In vast swathes of the US, terrorists would be the only person on an Amtrak train.

    Heh, indeed.

    Pathetic.

  21. Dan Tomkinson says:

    Mitch Berg is an idiot. That “tiny fragment” who ride Amtrak regularly which he describes contains some 70 million Americans.

    The only thing tiny in THAT comment is Mitch’s cognitive abilities.

  22. jayackroyd says:

    LOL

    ZOMG! Train transport isn’t profitable! Subsidies are required:! That’s JUST WRONG!

    Unlike the enormous profits generated by the US Highway system.

  23. […] Senator Proposes “No-Ride” List For Rail (outsidethebeltway.com) […]

  24. PD Shaw says:

    I believe Doug’s point was that Amtrak isn’t healthy enough for the additional costs, at least outside of the Northeast Corridor. The NE corridor garners over 50% of Amtrak’s revenue.

    (The last time I took the Amtrak, my family was the only one on our car; it was a ninety minute trip that took 2 1/2 hours because of freight train priority)

  25. lunaticllama says:

    Not really sure I understand why because Amtrak loses money, it doesn’t deserve subsidies. Lots of government projects are undertaken, not because they are profitable, but because they provide a public service that people use. Although by this logic (profitable = good target for subsidies), I understand why conservatives are so enamored with subsidizing hugely profitable industries such as oil and finance.

  26. mantis says:

    Other money pits that are a huge waste because they aren’t profit generators:

    Rural Electrification
    US Postal Service
    Universal telephone coverage
    National Highway System
    US Armed Forces
    Public School System

    Some of those might be OK, but only if Doug personally uses them.

  27. feckless says:

    I don’t own a car. And I’m sick of throwing my tax money into the recurring pit of having highways resurfaced every 5 years.

    I don’t like the wars, they seem like a money pit too, but building highspeed rails for Afganistan/Iraq is cool, to be blown up, wash, rinse repeat…. look at that shiny bomb, isn’t it awesome? SEALs are cool, forget how much they cost.

    Keep screaming about the smoking cigarette butt of Amtrak funding while the wars and the vampiric american medical system are burning down the orphanage.

    “Third, 28 million riders in a a nation of more than 300 million people doesn’t strike me as a huge demand.”

    THATS 10%. No single religion in america represents 10% of Americans, but I seem to see alot of my tax money going to “faith based initiatives”.

    Your the joke.

  28. Hey Norm says:

    I ride Metro-North in and out of NYC all the time. There is no checkpoint to verify ID’s. If you introduce a checkpoint you suddenly make it easier to drive – which defeats the purpose of mass-transit.
    In addition would the guy that shot up LIRR in 1993 have been stopped? Probably not.
    Bad cases make for bad laws.

  29. sam says:

    “Of course, except for the tiny fragment of America living in the congested mid-Atlantic strip,”

    Yeah, but Dudz, that’s the mostest importantest fragment of Americans — bankers and hedge fund honchos and insurance execs and all those other masters of the universe. They must be protected at all costs as they travel to DC to continue the national screwery they are expert in. Our national survival depends on them. Just ask them. You guys have no sense of proportion.

  30. KeithW says:

    You can tell a lot about the quality of someone’s thinking if they criticize rail subsidy without also acknowledging the massive subsidies given to roads. Funnily enough, it’s usually right-wingers who don’t take the train that make this mistake.

    Roads are a public service. So is rail, the justice system, the military, the NOAA, and a thousand other things. You can debate each one’s merits, but let’s not pretend that just because something fails to make a profit means it has no worth.

  31. JKB says:

    I do not understand this lament about national highway funding in comparison to Amtrak. The highway system facilitated and continues to support a broad expansion in profit-making businesses who then pay income tax. Not to mention, some 30% of highway funds come from trucking, which moves freight. Amtrak offers neither of these investments, either in facilitating business that would not otherwise be possible or the movement of freight. If passenger rail was unavailable anyone traveling for business would fly, drive or take the bus. Rail freight is handled by private, profit-motivated companies who either buy access to Amtrak rails or operate on private rail systems.

    Same for rural electrification, which truthfully could now be ended, but when first started brought increased productivity to rural farmers, created new consumers for electric appliances and facilitated the building of profit making companies over a broader area.

    So before you go off on the tangent of other government investments, you should be prepared to show how Amtrak’s unique existence promotes business and generates income taxes off the profits made by those businesses or workers.

  32. Cackalacka says:

    Thank God that my primary choices for transportation (auto and air) never rely on government hand-outs.

    Being a resident of the south-east, what is really awesome is the speed and ease with which I can travel via air to DC, NYC, or Boston- when you remove air traffic, security, and weather from the picture.

    It’s a 1:15 flight to Newark, in theory, but thanks to the fact that most of humanity tries to fly to the tri-state area on a given day, and a majority of said humanity comes from greater distances (hence get higher priority for landing.)

    So the net result of my $$$ plane ticket is:

    1) Get through security (1-3 hours of lines)
    2) Wait at the gate (1-2 hours)
    3) Wait on the tarmac as the air space over Pittsburg-Boston-DC triangle calms down (1-3 hours)
    4) Arrive at Newark. Which can be 4 hours after I park my car, if I’m lucky, or tomorrow, as has been the case of late. Sprinkle in a summer thunderstorm and I’ll be missing that client meeting tomorrow. Opportunity cost is still cost.

    Last dozen times I’ve flown to NY, the shortest amount of time it has taken me is 7 hours. (Again, that is an 8 hour drive, depending on what is going on in DC.) Many times, the flight is canceled. The majority of times it has taken the air carrier >10 hours to move me <500 miles.

    It's not the carriers fault that the NE air/auto infrastructure's woefully inadequate for demand. It'd be nice if there were alternative methods.

  33. KeithW says:

    “promotes business and generates income taxes”

    I rest my case. A public service doesn’t have to make a profit, generate income tax, or promote business to make it worthwhile. It just has to provide a public benefit.

  34. JKB says:

    It just has to provide a public benefit.

    Yet, Amtrak which serves very few citizens provides very little benefit for the massive expenditures. I guess you could call it a welfare program for the train aficionados or something. It certainly doesn’t provide a benefit to the public that could not be met far more efficiently and cost-effectively by other means.

    Hey, Schumer, you need a now walk list, that seems to be causing more concern among your constituents.

  35. Angry Lurker says:

    I’m pleased to see you taking a beating in the comments over your thoughtless mistake (or ‘joke’ as you call it) about Amtrak ridership. As someone who is not a regular reader of your blog, I’m not impressed with your response.

    Like so many politicians and big-media pundits these days, you seem incapable of admitting when you’ve made a simple mistake.

    You’re correct that the issue of Amtrak’s ridership is not central to the argument of your post. All the more embarrassing that you refuse to just man up and acknowledge your error. It just makes you look silly and rigid, and gives me no reason to return to this blog. After all, I can get all the mindless conventional wisdom groupthink I want from the cable channels.

    “Whatever” indeed!

  36. DarrenG says:

    Yet, Amtrak which serves very few citizens provides very little benefit for the massive expenditures. I guess you could call it a welfare program for the train aficionados or something. It certainly doesn’t provide a benefit to the public that could not be met far more efficiently and cost-effectively by other means.

    Really? What other mode of passenger transport exceeds train travel in efficiency and cost-effectiveness, particularly in densely populated areas?

    Your theory seems to be the tens of millions of Americans (and hundreds of millions world-wide) who use passenger rail are just indulging in some weird fetish rather than making a rational economic choice? Really? That’s your argument?

    As others have pointed out, *all* passenger travel (automobile, bus, air, even boats and ferries) is heavily government subsidized and not profitable, so I really don’t understand the current right-wing knee-jerk hatred for rail.

  37. Patrick T. McGuire says:

    LOL, this dipstick senator wants to examine “Amtrak manifolds” to keep passengers on the “no ride” list from boarding the train. This fool couldn’t find a “manifold” with a flashlight in both hands.

  38. KeithW says:

    Amtrak takes people out of cars and planes. This is a public service; trains are far less polluting than either. It’s a direct benefit to me whether I take a train or not – this is the definition of something that governments are better at providing than the market, because the benefit is external to the market for transport. I know benefits to human beings aren’t nearly as importance to “business” though . . .

  39. Lit3Bolt says:

    Doug Mataconis, you have just been owned on the internet by a commentator from a different political blog. Your thoughts please? Will you deny this event ever happened and ignore it hoping it goes down the memory hole like an intellectual coward? What are your plans for your next ideological fact-denying post? Will continue to blog in a faith-based manner? We eagerly await your response.

  40. LOLing says:

    Never heard of this Mataconis character until today (sorry, don’t have time to read the wingnut minor leagues,) but I am SO glad I came to read these great comments.

    For the record, “so, whatever” actually means “I am wrong and you are right, but I can neither muster the mental energy it takes to respond nor the maturity it takes to admit my error.” Anyone who responds to an argument with “whatever” is an unserious person… or, in my house, a child who is about to be grounded.

  41. Rock says:

    Given the horrible condition of the tracks, rail beds and rotten cross ties, if you ride a train today without derailing count yourself lucky. It’s amazing to me that we don’t have more train accidents than we do.

    I’ve only traveled by train in the USA twice, once in 1959 from Ft. Smith, Arkansas to Louisville, KY. and in the early 60s from California to Texas. Slow and dreary trips. On the other hand European trains are fast, furious and fun.

    Add me to the no ride least, please.

  42. mantis says:

    Given the horrible condition of the tracks, rail beds and rotten cross ties, if you ride a train today without derailing count yourself lucky.

    How many derailments have there been this year? How many trains? Math is hard when you’re stupid, isn’t it?

  43. KeithW says:

    Rail passenger transport is, of course, considerably safer per passenger-mile than road is. Transport infrastructure in the US, whether rail or road, isn’t in the best shape; I seem to remember a road bridge collapsing last year, not a rail one, for example. This is what happens when you’re run by a political class that doesn’t believe that government is ever the answer (unless it involves a war). Nonetheless, if Amtrak closed down, people would transfer from a safer mode of transport to a less safe one, simultaneously making it even less safe due to increased road journeys. (Or they’d transfer to the air, stressing further the over-stressed air traffic control system, making *that* less safe).

  44. Rock says:

    How many derailments have there been this year? How many trains? Math is hard when you’re stupid, isn’t it?

    Stupid?

    What about “It’s amazing to me that we don’t have more train accidents than we do,” is so difficult for you to understand? Especially when railroads are in such deplorable condition. I did not claim that we had a lot of train accidents. However the latest accidents that come to mind involved inattention by doped up engineers, or using a cell phone, or texting while driving or something of that nature.

    Several years ago I watched a speeding freight train derail in the middle of a small town. Engines, boxcars, chemical tankers, and propane cars were scattered along a half-mile stretch of track. We had no explosions or fires and chemical spills and no injuries or deaths. The train derailed when the rails rolled over because of loose or missing spikes and rotten rails. Train derailment caused by striking cars and trucks is another matter.

    Once again . . . “it’s amazing to me that we don’t have more train accidents than we do.”

  45. mantis says:

    I did not claim that we had a lot of train accidents.

    No, you claimed one would be lucky to ride a train that didn’t derail. I don’t know what your definition of “lucky” is, but mine would be something other than “happens 99.999% of the time.” Perhaps you can enlighten us to your definition.

    However the latest accidents that come to mind involved inattention by doped up engineers, or using a cell phone, or texting while driving or something of that nature.

    Yet your original claim was about the terrible shape you claim the railroads are in:

    Given the horrible condition of the tracks, rail beds and rotten cross ties

    So our rails are in such bad shape, your lucky if you don’t derail, but really the problem is distracted engineers. Make up your mind.

  46. Barb Hartwell says:

    I love the trains and my hopes are to make them better. People talk about money pit, boondoggles What about nuclear power plants, the government subsidizes them and they are a much bigger threat, and they also lose money.

  47. Rock says:

    Mantis,

    You are right of course. Thanks to your insightful and helpful criticism, I now see the errors in my observations and opinion. It really is safe to continue to ride the rails and ship hazardous materials across country on those dilapidated old railroad tracks. How could I not have known? Doh!

  48. anjin-san says:

    so I really don’t understand the current right-wing knee-jerk hatred for rail.

    Oh, it’s easy to understand. These are the guys who drive around in trucks and SUVs with bumper stickers that say “Will bend over for Exxon”.

    It certainly doesn’t provide a benefit to the public that could not be met far more efficiently and cost-effectively by other means.

    Perhaps you will enlighten us about these “other means”…

  49. […] Senator Proposes “No-Ride” List For Rail (outsidethebeltway.com) […]